Golf in Minnesota hits tough times for players, courses

  • Article by: JASON GONZALEZ AND MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: August 18, 2014 - 12:01 PM

The golf craze that began in the 1990s is over. The golfers are fewer and the challenges are more at Twin Cities courses.

Only one member of the Allen family is still intrigued by the golf clubs stored in the garage.

Curious 2-year-old Landon digs through the old bag stuffed with dirty clubs any chance he gets. But the toddler has enough toys, mom Nicole said, as she priced the clubs to sell at $30 on Craigslist last month. A sale will be the final step in making it at least 40,000 Minnesotans who have given up the game of golf in the past two decades.

All over the state, and especially in Minneapolis and around the Twin Cities, communities are quickly trying to decide whether to abandon the game; change their courses and golf culture for a new generation; or wait out the slump while hoping for another 20-year hot streak.

Riding the golf boom into the new millennium, the sport’s health, like a good round gone terribly wrong, has taken a painful turn in short time. The game is bleeding both recreational golfers and the courses they used to play.

With so many former customers like the Jason Allen, Landon’s father, choosing to spend their time and money elsewhere, the sport’s many jobs — from greens­keeper to clubhouse bartender to golf pro — continue to vanish.

It has been six years since Allen, of Brooklyn Park, last punished himself on the golf course. He first sliced a tee shot into the wrong fairway 10 years ago at Pebble Creek Golf Club in Becker. The slice never straightened, and he doesn’t have the time or the desire to spend the money to fix it.

“If I had the time to, maybe I wouldn’t mind putting the time and investment that you have to put into the game,” Allen said. “I don’t have the time to play anymore, and it is kind of an expensive sport.”

He was pulled in, like millions of others, when Tiger Woods was energizing the old game and new gear such as Big Berthas enticed fringe players. But today the sport has lost nearly 5 million players nationally since it hit a peak of 30.5 million in 2003. Even the state that proudly boasts a “most golfers per capita” slogan isn’t scoring well. Minnesota Golf Association membership, a strong indicator of avid golfers of the 492 state courses, has fallen from a 1999 high of 94,000 to 65,000.

Seemingly every end of summer means an end to golf in at least one corner of a community. In the coming weeks, it will happen again, in Edina and elsewhere. Since the last new course opened in the Twin Cities in 2006, 14 others have closed across the state, according to the MGA.

No city is struggling more than Minneapolis, where a commissioned report this year called for $34 million in improvements.

Too many courses, the dwindling demand and an unforgiving economic recession resulted in what is today’s correction, said Tom Ryan, MGA executive director and chief operating officer.

“I really believe the game of golf is fine. The business of golf is what’s struggling, and the business of golf includes the number of people playing, and the number of clubs and golf holes available for those people,” Ryan said. “It’s amazing how much has changed in 15 years.”

Courses take a beating

Local course owners are warning that it will be another flat financial golf season, if they’re lucky, said Curt Walker, executive director of the Midwest Golf Course Owners Association.

Employees at Edina’s nine-hole Fred Richards Golf Course are feeling unlucky after learning the course will close at the end of the season. Jack McKernan, who has worked the clubhouse for 14 years, will be forced into retirement.

“It’s a shame,” McKernan said. “We’re sad because we’re closing. I don’t know where the kids are going to play. They’re going to be closed out. … It’s a shame we’re going to lose this jewel.”

In each corner of the metro, tall weeds or new homes stand where well-manicured fairways and greens once were considered the jewels of the communities. Minneapolis lost a half-million dollars running its six courses in 2013, a $2.3 million swing in the wrong direction after a golf-boom high $1.8 million profit in 2000. The source of that big loss is easy to find: Barely more than half as many rounds were played in 2013 than in 2000.

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board President Liz Wielinski anticipates major changes and possible course consolidation. Earlier this year, a consulting group’s 151-page course operational and financial review deemed Minneapolis city golf to be a “failing enterprise” and “in the grips of a death spiral.”

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